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Hinduism has many festivals and rituals. They celebrate the major stages of life as well as the deities and are an opportunity to spend time with loved ones. Among these celebrations, one, particularly rooted in the Hindu religion, takes place this August 22, 2021 in India and Nepal.
Raksha Bandhan is an ancestral Hindu tradition mainly celebrated by the Brahmin communities. It has its origin in mythology and, if the stories relating its creation differ in their account, they agree on the notion of protection conferred by brotherly love.
It is this love that is still celebrated today during the full moon of the month of Sravana (July/August). In the traditional ritual of Raksha Bandhan, the sister applies the Tilak on the forehead of her brother. The Tilak symbolizes the awakening of soul consciousness and is considered a mark of victory over all vices such as ego, greed and anger. Next, the sister ties a sacred thread or amulet called Rakhi around the brother’s wrist to ward off all evils and ensure his well-being.
The custom of tying the Rakhi is not limited to one’s own siblings, but also extends to cousins, distant relatives, older sisters in the absence of a brother and friends. Our head of women and child development programs in Bihar, Lakshmi Mehta, confides, “I not only celebrate Raksha Bandhan with my own brothers, but also with my brothers’ friends, as they are like my own siblings.”
Unlike the festivals of Holi, Divali or Durga Puja, which are social celebrations involving great pomp and circumstance, Raksha Bandhan is an entirely family-centered occasion and is not defined by mass gatherings or carnivals.
Raksha Bandhan has many names and can be celebrated differently depending on the location. In the eastern state of Odisha, for example, Raksha Bandhan is called Gamha Purnima and cattle are also revered there: cows and bulls are given a Rakhi!
In Nepal, Raksha Bandhan is called Janai Purnima and the rituals differ from those practiced in its Indian neighbor.
Janai refers to a triple cord worn by men on their chest and Purnima means “full moon day”. The Janai is given to men of certain castes during the Bratabandha – a ritual for Hindu youth that marks their entry into adulthood. The Janai is considered a symbol of body, speech and mind, and when the knots are tied, the wearer is expected to gain complete control over each. On this day, the men who wear the Janai bathe in sacred rivers or ponds and this thread is changed, hence the name Janai Purnima.
In the cities, a priest performs a ceremony that purifies the new thread and then places it around the man’s neck, on his chest. Another thread, called doro, is tied around their wrist. It is supposed to bring good luck and protect the person from evil. The doro is kept tied to the wrist until the day of Laxmi Puja, the cow worship. The thread is then removed from the wrist and tied to the tail of a cow. Hindus believe they must cross the Baitarni River after death to reach heaven. The cow then allows this crossing by letting the deceased cling to its tail with the doro.
Any festival is incomplete without food. Thus, members of the Newar community prepare a special soup called Kwati: this day is also called Kwati Punhi. “Eating kwati during Janai-purnima while gathering with family and cousins is the part of Janai-purnima that I enjoy the most!” says Binita Baral, program manager at Karuna-Shechen Nepal.
Over the years, Raksha Bandhan celebrations in India have seen some changes. The simple traditional sacred thread has been replaced by modern Rakhis inspired by the latest trends in jewelry.
Earlier, the festival was confined to India, but today, due to rapid globalization and the growing Indian diaspora around the world, Raksha Bandhan has gained worldwide popularity. In the traditional Rakhi ritual, brothers offer gifts to their sisters. However, in recent years, with the increase in financial independence of women, more and more sisters are giving gifts back to their brothers.
In addition, many city dwellers have broken away from traditional, patriarchal rituals, with sister and brother now giving each other a Rakhi. As our Karuna India Communications Officer, Anyesha Nandi, explains, “Ever since I was a small child, my brother and I have been linked by a Rakhi. I was too young to appreciate it at the time, but I realize today that this modernized approach to the Raksha Bandhan ritual has planted the seeds of gender equality in me and my siblings.”
In addition to the gender barrier, the festival now transcends the barriers of caste and religion to recognize the importance of voluntary kinship or social ties, in contrast to the traditional, conservative approach.
A celebration with many names and rituals, Raksha Bandhan is a cherished festival for Hindus around the world. Practiced for centuries, it has evolved over time without losing the values of love and protection that characterize it.
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